Last week, the talk of showbiz was the spectacular stage production of the movie classic Mughal-e-Azam, directed by Feroz Abbas Khan.
The 1960 film directed by K.Asif was not just a grand historical masterpiece, it was the most expensive film made then, and one of the all time blockbusters of Indian cinema. Asif was one of those meticulous auteurs, who insisted on the best costumes, authentic jewellery, and weapons of the Mughal period. Before the era of CGI, he shot battle scenes with thousands of extras and innumerable horses and elephants. It was the real estate company Shapoorji-Pallonji that funded Asif’s dream and waited patiently for a decade for the magnum opus to be completed. (While it was in the making Dilip Kumar and Madhubala had a romance and break-up too, and she married Kishore Kumar on the rebound, but that’s a part of Bollywood lore.) The premiere was a major event, with all the pomp expected of royalty, and the print delivered to the theatre on the back of an elephant.
But behind all the Bollywood opulence, was a play, written by Imtiaz Ali Taj, first performed in 1922. The character of the courtesan who was sentenced to death by Emperor Akbar for daring to fall in love with Crown Prince Salim—perhaps fictional, perhaps partially true—was immortalised by cinema—first in Anarkali (1953, directed by Nandlal Jaswantlal, starring Pradeep Kumar and Bina Rai), and then Mughal-e-Azam. The film’s lyrics, music and dialogues were in the finest theatrical tradition of the time—the kind of literary-poetic lines that are no longer heard in Hindi cinema.
The film was released in a colourised version in 2004 and was a hit again; in 2016, the play (produced by the NCPA and Shapoorji-Pallonji) proves to be a hit all over again. Why does the story still appeal to viewers, particularly youngsters? Maybe below all the silk, brocade, jewels and armour is the story of a young man fighting for the woman he loves, and standing up to his father, the most powerful man in India. Salim rebels against his father, goes to war against him and loses. When facing the firing squad (he is saved in the nick of time), he appeals to people to always support ‘dilwale’ not ‘daulatwale’—the kind of sentiment that transcends time, culture and social status. Today, when very few youngsters—at least in urban areas—need to rebel for the sake of love, the idealism and purity of young love goes straight to the heart. No matter how cynical the world, romance never goes out of style.
(Disclosure: This writer works at the NCPA, co-producers of the play, but the views expressed are her own)